Friday, November 2, 2012

Books for breakfast

Today's menu

Monstress, stories by Lysley Tenorio


I confess that I no longer read books all the way through. I used to. But these days, it takes a lot to grab my attention, and then hold it for, say, 220 pages.

I realize that there are things I do look for in the stuff I read, particularly if they aren't doing weird experiments or offering commentary on, plot and narrative, etc.  Reading Lysley Tenorio's "Monstress," confirmed my suspicion that one of the critical things I look out for in this kind of  literary fiction, is a sense of something familiar--a sense of home, maybe even what others might even call a sense of country. Very loaded terms, which I shouldn't be using, perhaps--there isn't any overt political agenda in "Monstress" and that is a point I appreciate.

Although all of the stories are about Filipinos (most of whom live, or have moved to, America), there's no sharp contrast drawn between "the old ways" and the "new way", which you might read in, say, Amy Tan's work. Instead "Monstress" portrays the reality of its characters as one seamless whole--the absurd is at home with the suburban.

My favorites are actually the stories of characters who don't move to America: "Felix Starro" (a faith healer practicing illegally in the United States); "The View from Culion" (a teenaged girl-leper-in-remission is asked to help an American deserter-leper adjust to life in Culion); and "Help" (a band of cousins is engaged by an Imelda Marcos-fanatic-uncle to attack the Beatles after their concert in Manila in the '60s).

"Save the I-Hotel" reminded me of the relationship between the two main characters of Bienvenido N. Santos' "The Day the Dancers Came".  Thought I have no way of knowing whether Tenorio intended his story as a response to Santos', I appreciate the way it picks up on the relationship in Santos' story, and communicates (is able to communicate) with this earlier work.

"L'Amour, CA" moved me to tears and made me picture, in my mind, the vulnerability of an immigrant Filipino in a predominantly Caucasian society--again, without the breast-beating and brow-beating you'd expect in more, um, polemical fiction. This was a story about a family that was just a family, not necessarily Filipino. Which is how, if I think about it, I see myself--not as a member of a category "Filipino" with specifically Filipino characteristics and traits (though lumpia does get mentioned in one of the stories I didn't quite like as much), but just a person trying to deal with life as it hits me.

Which is not to say that "Monstress" is politically blind--only that its statement (of course there is a statement in my reading) is that the immigrant, the gay senior citizen-immigrant, the "monstrous" women immigrants--they're all just people too. And what "Monstress" does is that it makes us see them, not as immigrant/gay/women/Filipino, but human first, and in so doing, empathize, understand.

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